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Field Experimentation in Boston’s Intertidal Zone

Workshop for Neuroinclusivity

Published onMar 08, 2018
Field Experimentation in Boston’s Intertidal Zone
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We seek collaboration with a teacher-artist and story-teller, particularly a photographer, who can help students to document their experiences in tackling urban-oriented ecological issues.


Presently, over 40% of the world’s population lives within 100 kilometers of the coastline (1), often in seaside megalopolises. While it is known that urban-adjacent marine ecosystems are subjected to unique stressors - namely unparalleled amounts of pollution stemming from urban runoff (2) - efforts related to ocean conservation, as well as marine ecological investigation, most frequently concern the open sea, beyond the immediate reaches of urban ecosystems.

To better inform regulatory actions related to urban ocean protection, we must understand the unique qualities of these ecological bodies - the seas of cities - , particularly as global changes (climate change; rapid urbanization) leverage additional strain on these fragile systems.

In parallel, given technological-driven paradigmatic shift in our ability to characterize the unknown world, we are driven to generate innovative and novel platforms for education in the environmental sciences: experiential, instructional excursions which will empower and inspire urban populations to spearhead efforts to sculpt the future of their territories.

Ideally, these sorts of experiences will cater to all individuals, regardless of gender, race, or cognitive differences.

How can we learn more about the hybrid ecologies of urban ocean environments while simultaneously connecting broader populations to these bodies? How can we build learning communities around urban oceans? How can we make learning environments related to STEM more inclusive? In what ways can we capitalize on public space to enhance relationships to marine science and discovery - and how does this shape the design of cities and landscapes of tomorrow?


‘Citizen science’ (or Open Science) movements have generated robust momentum for allowing communities to delineate the natural world —or speculate its future— in hands-on and creative ways. As part of a larger effort to cultivate a future generation of environmentally-engaged and justice-focused citizen scientists, we propose here a two-day pilot workshop for Boston-area neurodivergent (e.g., autistic, dyslexic, dyspraxic, ADD, ADHD, etc.) youth in which participants will learn about the ecology of rocky and intertidal systems, develop a hypothesis surrounding these bodies, and subsequently execute a field investigation to test this hypothesis.

Students will have the option of approaching fieldwork as a scientist (or engineer), an artist, or a writer (poet, journalist).

The proposed workshop will serve as a ‘postlude’ to a program we have developed for 2018 summer —for which we have applied for a National Geographic Early Career Grant—, titled City as Laboratory, City as Classroom, in which students investigate topics in urban ecology using municipally designated ‘Urban Wilds’ in Boston (3) as learning environments. In this pilot workshop, we will similarly employ this model (‘city as classroom’), and therefore propose three candidate Urban Wilds - all easily accessible by public transit - in Boston as potential locations at which students will test hypotheses: Belle Isle Marsh, Wood Island Bay Marsh, and Condor Street Urban Wild (below).

We envision that use of easy-to-access, public sites for the pilot workshop will further democratize the potential to recapitulate similar endeavors in ecological exploration and immersive learning.

Candidate Urban Wilds - Jill Desimini | Harvard Graduate School of Design

Day I of this workshop will take place at the MIT Media Lab, where students will learn about the ecology of rocky intertidal zones, intertidal research, as well as current investigations in the field. Students will additionally work together in small groups to develop hypotheses about the phenomena occurring in Boston’s intertidal zones (e.g., species distribution; presence of various pollutants) which they will subsequently test on site during Day II.

On Day II, following the field investigation, students will regroup at the Media Lab to get a crash course on data interpretation and visualization. Thereafter, they will present their work to classmates as well as parents and community members, through text, graphics, and more.

We envision that this pilot session will serve as the groundwork for the development of a larger, multi-week educational platform to be launched in 2018 Fall or 2019 Spring (as a future iteration of our Ecology, Evolution, and Engineering for Empowered Brains series).


A novelty of this work concerns curriculum and workshop development specifically for neurodivergent youth; thus an important unknown relates to best practices related to ensuring sensory-friendly and neuroinclusive customs in outdoor environments which might be experientially overwhelming or unpredictable.

What remains more unknown, however, are the results which might stem from this pilot study. The idea of black-and-white, result-driven investigation can be a challenging issue in the field of education, especially as it pertains to participatory and community-based teaching efforts.

For this project, the desired outcomes shall be purely qualitative (and, further, individualistic). This is to say, a successful “result,” then, is based on, for example, story-telling, conveying of imaginations, artistic recounting of experience, and, above all, a desire to institute change in urban environs.


We will request funding to cover student transportation to the field site, as well as for materials related needed for both classroom learning and experimentation (notebooks, quadrats, etc.).

For this project, we seek collaboration with a teacher-artist, particularly a photographer, who can help students to document their experiences in tackling urban-oriented ecological issues. While acquisition of meaningful data is interesting, a primary interest of our work relates to assisting students to tell stories about learning in creative and playful ways; to engage with broader communities through multi-sensorial experience; to embed personal narrative into scientific exploration.

Beyond this, we are always interested in connecting with community leaders, educators, and public learning institutions to collaborate in development of related workshops. Finally, we welcome participation by neurodivergent individuals as informers of the collaborative design process. 


2018 Spring - Curriculum development and tuning.

2018 Summer - Participant recruitment; playtesting.

2018 September - Host workshop.


Avery Normandin | MIT Media Lab

Devora Najjar | MIT Media Lab

Rafiq Abdus-Sabur | Empowered Brain Institute

Paige Normandin | New Hampshire Public Schools




Avery Normandin:

Avery Normandin has submitted this pub for publication.